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In team sports, a youth system is a program within a particular team or league, to develop young players in farm teams. The players may be used in the first team if they show enough promise and potential, or used in teams with small budgets. In contrast to most sports in the United States where the high school and collegiate system is responsible for developing young sports people, most football clubs, especially in Europe and Latin America, take responsibility for developing their own players of the future.
Most youth systems attached exclusively to one club are often called youth academies. In a youth academy, a club will sign multiple players at a very young age and teach them football skills required to play at that club's standard.
An alternative name for a youth academy is "Centre of Excellence". In English football these terms have distinct meanings and are licensed and regulated by The Football Association and The Football League.
While similar to youth academies, youth leagues are built into a club competition rather than an individual club. However, the teams that play in these youth leagues (called farm teams) are generally attached to a larger senior club. The purpose of these leagues is to give young players experience in proper competition against other players that they will most likely end up playing with or against. The Premier League in England is known for having a large youth league attached to its senior clubs. In the forthcoming season the A-League in Australia will begin its own youth league.
Youth leagues are not just exclusive to football (soccer). The Australian Football League (AFL) has a youth league established underneath its senior league with no attachment to any senior club. The players that play in this competition are then chosen to play for senior clubs through the AFL Draft. Minor ice hockey and junior ice hockey serve an identical purpose for ice hockey and the National Hockey League (NHL). To a certain extent, Little League Baseball serves a similar purpose for professional baseball, although the vast majority of development and recruitment comes at the high school level.
The other major professional sports leagues in the United States and Canada do not have a youth development system. The National Football League's players are developed predominantly through the education system, first with high school football and then college football. Basketball players are typically developed and recruited straight out of high school, although the National Basketball Association requires at least one year out of high school to be eligible to play. College basketball is also a source of players for the NBA and other professional leagues.
- "Life at a football academy". BBC News. 2005-09-30.
- "Does United's future still lie in youth?". BBC News. 2004-09-02.
- Philip, Robert (2004-06-14). "West Ham in the nation's debt for grooming England talent". The Daily Telegraph (London).
- "Programme for Excellence". The FA. 2003-11-06. Retrieved 2008-06-20.
- Davutovic, David (2007-10-30). "Football Federation looks at national youth league". The Daily Telegraph.